Monday 18 November 2013

Anti-Semitism in Nineteenth-Century Germany

The following piece was originally to be included in the chapter on Richard Wagner in That Line of Darkness: The Gothic from Lenin to bin Laden (Encompass Editions, 2013) but was excluded for reasons of space and it was peripheral to my material on the German composer

The liberal inclusiveness underpinning the nationalism that knitted a crazy-quilt pattern of kingdoms, cities and principalities into a single Reich in 1871 spurred the removal of civil and legal disabilities for Jews, a process that had begun in Prussia in 1812, accompanied, unfortunately, by riots. Equipped in theory with the same rights as any other citizen, they could freely enter into the professional, cultural and political mainstream, and their prominence disproportionate to their one percent of the German population, particularly in industry and journalism, produced a chauvinistic backlash by the end of the decade. When Bismarck had extracted five million francs from the French to pay for war reparations arising from its defeat in 1870, he could never have imagined that they would pay it off so quickly, although an army of occupation assuredly served as a powerful motivator. Most of that money fueled a buoyant overheated economy. 
Otto von Bismarck

The unprecedented market euphoria with its manic investment and consumer spending inevitably precipitated an economic collapse whose subsequent doldrums persisted for a decade resulting in widespread unemployment and failed businesses and a search for scapegoats. Jews (and Polish Slavs in the east) became targets of resentment and envy particularly during the market crash of 1873, when impersonal forces and unwise investments were interpreted in personal terms as a swindle even though Jewish influence in banking and heavy industry was at that time almost negligible. But for many who suffered under the new commercial system of capitalism when market forces drove small shopkeepers out of business, or small farmers off the land, the so-called rootless or cosmopolitan Jews, who were concentrated in the cities, were visible symbols of modernity. For liberals, modernity connoted civic equality, freedom of the press, capitalism and industrialism, but to conservatives, it became increasingly associated with degeneracy and the pejorative “asphalt culture.”

Heinrich von Treitschke
The most prominent and widely read historian of his day, Heinrich von Treitschke, articulated the rancor of those who associated the Jews with money, power, speculation and greed: "Indisputably, the Semites have had a large share in the lies and falsehoods, the brazen greed of materialism of our time." The political parties of the center and particularly the Social Democratic party of the left, where Jews were prominent, became targets of venomous commentary from spokesmen of the Court and conservative newspapers. Jews hoped to offset hostile responses with greater efforts at assimilation, stopping short of conversion, by embracing the modernity of the Enlightenment. By opting for Reform Judaism, (though some adhered to Orthodox Judaism) they jettisoned traditional rituals and religious practices such as the Sabbath, dietary laws and the injunction to cover their heads. They distinguished between ceremonial law and the moral law, opting for the latter.

Before the formation of the Second Reich, Jews were condemned for not fitting in; by the late 1870s their assimilation provoked fear rendering them indistinguishable in dress, appearance and outward religious signs. Assimilated Jews even shared with other Germans a faint revulsion for the smells and the dirt associated with ghetto life, the fear of contagious diseases and the tribalism of Yiddish speaking, distinctively attired Jews contemptuously dubbed by Treitschke as “Kaftan Jews” who fled terrible pogroms in Russia. The harsh treatment refugees received when they were quarantined in trains for days on end without water or refreshments and only allowed out when they passed through delousing stations helped to perpetuate the prevailing stereotype. 
a 1906 artist rendering of the Jews in Germany

Although they harboured ambivalent feelings towards Eastern Jews, assimilated Jews would have been appalled by the repellent imagery employed by members of the highest circles in government against these very poor and frightened refugees. Bismarck’s own press secretary published a vicious tract that exploited fears of the ghetto Jews with their unkempt beards and earlocks, who, out of a “primeval hatred for all Christians” waited like vampires to suck the “life blood out of the German nationalist organism.” The only way to stop these “leeches” was to hermetically seal German borders, a policy that Bismarck followed by authorizing the expulsion of Eastern Jews. In the hope of currying favour with the authorities and deflecting anti-Semitism, some German Jewish bourgeoisie commentators made every effort to disassociate themselves from the “wearers of caftans and stout women…ragged children with expectant eyes, sneaky men…incomprehensible words.” As if a rear-view mirror had been thrust in front of them, the image of a ghetto past that they had rejected now loomed disturbingly before them and threatened to engulf and undermine their sometimes-desperate efforts to be recognized as Germans. Besides their fear and revulsion toward these interlopers, assimilated Jews also bore a “family resemblance” with other Germans because they both shared the same values: hard work, a commitment to family and religion, and a great respect for education. They also had in common less flattering traits that included an intense pursuit of business, tactlessness, oversensitivity, arrogance and self-contempt. If the assimilated Jew was the doppelganger to the German, it is logical that the former appeared to share with the latter some of these positive and negative qualities in their attitudes toward ostensibly different peoples such as the ghetto Jews fleeing pogroms in Russia. 

Like their assimilated brethren in Britain, German Jews were sympathetic to the plight of their religious brothers but offended by their cultural strangeness. Similarly, they too organized massive charity work and generously assisted them in their repatriation to Russia or helped them to immigrate to England, Latin America, and especially America. Consequently, the numbers entering Germany were slight compared to Austria, France and England. These efforts, however, underscored the self-deception of the assimilated Jews. They did not understand that for sophisticated anti-Semites, the remarks of Bismarck’s press secretary notwithstanding, distinctions between modern and medieval Jews dissolved into the continuum of race that linked the dirt, disease and smell of the ghetto with the parvenus among the financial and cultural elite. Paradoxically, the more they resembled other Germans, the more they encountered resentment. Their invisibility and success, camouflaged by their increasingly fluent German and insinuating themselves among “authentic” Germans, excited fear among Gentiles far more than the visible pariahs of the ghetto who for the most part were passing through Germany to points west. True, the ones that remained were less than thirteen percent of the Jewish population, and their visibility and vulnerability to deportation and later physical attacks helped to keep the anti-Semitic stereotypes alive. But a new breed of theorists professed to identify racial criteria that the Jew had hidden within himself; for those who were receptive to the new racism, the assimilated Jews presented the greater danger because “they inflamed the hostility of their partners, [as] they came to resemble them.” Freud’s adage about the narcissism of minor differences, that is, the smaller the differences that exist between peoples, the larger they loom in their imagination, acquires resonance in the German attitude towards the Jew.

Wilhelm Marr
By the end of the decade, Wilhelm Marr had coined the term anti-Semitism in his 1879 pamphlet, The Victory of  Judaism over Germanism, which historian Jacob Katz called the "first anti-Semitic best seller." In 1880-81 an anti-Semitic petition to limit the rights of Jews and prevent further immigration, which was aimed at both caftan Jew and his modern counterpart, acquired a quarter of one million signatures. To his credit, Richard Wagner refused to sign even if his decision was not the noblest of reasons: he disliked the idea of appealing to Bismarck, with whom by this time he was thoroughly disenchanted. Still, it is an indication that Wagner did not always participate in the chauvinistic extreme right political climate that characterized the Reich after 1880.

During this period a tension exited between the old style religious anti-Judaism and the more ‘scientific’ anti-Semitism. Whereas the former, that had been widespread on the continent, especially in the Germanic countries, was rooted in the ancient belief that Jews had rejected Christ, and thereby deserved the contempt accorded them, its modern and more virulent form was based on biological racism. The two forms overlapped, as traditional anti-Judaism did not disappear in the second half of the nineteenth century. For example, it found expression in the bilious ranting of Adolf Stoecker who was the chaplain at the court of Wilhelm II. The medieval notion of the Jews being an agent of the Devil who emitted a horrible stench was still alive, but redemption was possible through the escape hatch of conversion. The stench miraculously disappeared. The medieval imagination had invested the Jew with horns and tail as a mark of their satanic affiliation. But since the eighteenth century, the diabolical features were jettisoned and replaced by human ones, albeit near the bottom of the sliding scale: a huge hooked nose, protruding lower lips and hooded eyes leering in greed and lust. A century later, the new social sciences reinforced the physiognomy attributes with the hypothesis that Jews were a race with immutable qualities that dictated that a Jew could never become a German. One pamphleteer stated this repugnant idea in explicit terms: “The conversion to Christianity could no more transform the Jews into Germans than the skin of blacks could be turned into white.” According to this racist argument, “even the most honest Jew, under the influence of his blood” was the “carrier of Semite morality” that contaminated the vital forces within German society threatening it with degeneracy and death. Because these social theorists couched their writings in the new pseudo-scientific language of the emergent disciplines of anthropology and biology that referred to the Semitic cranium and haunch-formation, they were able to impress the gullible who would have been embarrassed by the traditionalists who labeled Jews as Christ killers.
Adolf Stoecker

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